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Gary Freeze ready with book 3 of ‘The Catawbans’

By Susan Shinn

For The Salisbury Post

Dr. Gary Freeze has done it again. By the end of the month, he expects to finish the first draft of the third and final book on Catawba County.

The first, “The Catawbans: Crafters of a North Carolina County,” was published in 1995. The second, “The Catawbans: Pioneers in Progress” was published in 2008. If all goes according to schedule, “The Catawbans: Boomers and Bypasses,” will be published in 2015. It represents the completion of Freeze’s trilogy.

This project started years ago when Freeze, professor of history at Catawba College, met Sidney Halma, director of the Catawba County Museum of History.

“We had a long talk,” Freeze says over breakfast one recent morning, “and I agreed to write a book. I’ve been doing this ever since.”

The original purpose of the project was to commemorate the county’s 150th anniversary in 1992. However, Freeze got bogged down in research, and was three years late to press.

That was OK.

The first book was published at a pivotal time in Freeze’s life, the year he first came to Catawba College. He researched the archives at Catawba County’s museum and library. There was no Internet research involved, because the Internet wasn’t really prevalent yet.

“Genealogy is important in Catawba County, too,” Freeze says. “That’s pretty much what the book is.”

It stops at 1900, so it was natural that the second book cover the period up to World War II. The books encompass the civic history of Catawba County, Freeze explains. “I endlessly walk the tightrope of criticism versus celebration.”

For the second book, Freeze dove deep into the archives of the area’s daily and weekly papers. Few historians have done what he did, he says. The second book, for example, includes a 50-page interpretation of the Great Depression and ensuing New Deal in Catawba County. “No scholar has ever attempted to understand the Great Depression with the local depth I have given it.”

Freeze explains it this way: he’s taking postage stamps of history, and arranging them into a collection that means something on a state and national level.

“He had the vision that he could tie in local history to state and national events that were happening,” Halma says. And he’s proud of the fact that the first two books have won national awards.

“They’re a model for communities to write their own histories,” he says.

In his research, Freeze found that Catawbans took innovation and used tradition to make it work better. For example, one local farmer, J.H. Teague, took advantage of the program to buy land and market his crops. But he hired black workers and used mules to work the land.

“This happened all over America,” Freeze says.

The second book ends with the triumph of the Greatest Generation.

Freeze took a sabbatical from the college beginning in May to research and write the third book.

“It is a study of the post-war county,” Freeze says, recounting the progeny of the Greatest Generation. Freeze looks at culture, education and integration.

The book covers local history until 1992 — another roughly 50-year span.

“I’m following the traditional historical model in that the last 20 years is not history,” Freeze notes. “Historians need to have the breadth of a generation, and I’m holding to that.”

He admits it’s the hardest book he’s ever written because the history is so recent.

Freeze’s draft is due Jan. 1. He’ll return to teaching Jan. 10. He can rewrite while taking on his normal teaching load, he says.

Halma says he hopes the book will be published by summer 2015.

Through his books, Freeze has found that the appreciation of history remains strong in Catawba County. He’s also written smaller books for the county, including “Planting the Seeds of Faith: A History of First Presbyterian Church in Newton, N.C., 1858-2008,” “Carolina Arcadia: The Story of the Sparkling Catawba Springs,” and “She is Not Yet Finished: A History of Newton, North Carolina.”

“I think it’s absolutely wonderful,” Halma says of the trilogy. “The current administration in Catawba County is very supportive. For our natives, it’s a testament to the people who settled here. For newcomers, it gives them a sense of what happened prior to their arrival.”

“Catawba County is clearly defined by its generations,” he says. “Families there trace their histories back to the Revolutionary War. They volunteer that information. It isn’t that the past is still present, but it’s also useful information. They value what the books tell them. They’re conservative in today’s terms, but progressive.”

Their county commission, he says, values consensus over conflict. “The county commission is almost like a board of directors and has been for the past 50 years.”

Freeze says he’s still “old school,” when it comes to studying history — he prefers the case study method versus the topical method.

“I have provided the making of a interpretation of history,” he says. “I feel good about that professionally.”

Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.

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